As many in the sellout crowd were filing out of the big barn on F St. with a minute left after Logan Couture's empty-netter gave the visiting Sharks a 4-2 lead over the Caps, Washington engineered a thrilling comeback for the ages, scoring three times in just under three minutes to skate away with an improbable 5-4 victory.
Lars Eller won it for Washington at 2:01 of overtime, taking a cross-ice feed from John Carlson and beating Sharks goalie Martin Jones on the glove side. But it took a pair of last-minute, 6-on-5 goals from the Caps to force overtime, and it took a pair of dazzling saves from Braden Holtby in the extra session to set the stage for Eller's heroics.
"That was one of the wildest games I've played," says Eller. "Not a particularly great game from our side throughout the game; I think our fourth line played great, got us started. But being down two goals twice, many teams would have folded and rode it out, but even with one minute left, there was no quit."
"It's a little bit of the changing NHL that you're never out of a game," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "We've seen that more than ever in the league this year.
"I think you have to be willing to stay in it. A lot of teams won't even bother pulling their goalie [after yielding an empty-netter]. 'Ah, it's a minute left or whatever, we just gave up an empty-netter.' That's not my philosophy or our philosophy as a team, and we'll take the goal against, and never quit in a game."
Video: Reirden Postgame | January 5
After a scoreless and penalty-free first frame in which both goaltenders were solid, the Caps and Sharks combined for five goals in the middle frame. Two of San Jose's goals came on the power play, and noted Caps killer Evander Kane started the scoring with a power-play goal at 6:25 of the second, scoring on a one-timer from the slot.
Washington responded quickly, getting even just over a minute later when new daddy Nic Dowd scored at 7:29. The Caps went 200 feet in a matter of seconds. From behind his own net, Michal Kempny fired a breakout pass straight up the middle of the ice. It clicked off Garnet Hathaway's stick blade and went to the right wing wall, where Brendan Leipsic made a neat play to beat his man to the puck and put a backhand dish to the middle for Dowd, whose one-timer from the slot beat Jones to make it a 1-1 game.
The Caps had a chance to take a lead later on the same shift, but Kane hacked Hathaway as he was going to the net, blunting his shot and putting Washington on the power play.
Seconds after his teammates completed the penalty killing mission, Kane stepped out of the box, took a feed from Logan Couture and snapped a shot past Holtby from just above the top of the right circle, restoring the Sharks' lead at 2-1 at 10:06 of the middle period.
In the back half of the frame, the Caps were again unable to successfully complete a penalty- killing assignment against San Jose's power play, ranked 27th in the league at the dawn of the day. Kane completed his hat trick at 16:49 of the second, pounding home a big rebound of an Erik Karlsson drive from center point to make it a 3-1 game.
With less than two minutes left in the second, a hard-working shift in the San Jose end got the Caps to within one. Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie put some forechecking flame on the Sharks behind their net, and Oshie came away with the puck and curled back to the front of the cage. Spotting Vrana at the opposite post, Oshie fed him, and Vrana lifted the puck over Jones to make it 3-2 with 1:18 left in the second.
Video: SJS@WSH: Vrana nets turning wrist shot from the slot
Evgeny Kuznetsov had a breakaway opportunity in the final seconds of the frame, but tried to put some razzle dazzle on it with a between the legs shot. But he was unable to pull the trigger, and the Caps entered the third down a goal.
A Washington power play failed to produce the equalizer, and the Caps were forced to kill a pair of penalties of their own, both of them for putting the puck over the glass. Carlson took the second of those minors with 5:08 left, cutting a two-minute chunk into the Caps' comeback time. But after yielding a pair of power-play goals to San Jose in the second, the Caps killed both penalties in the third.
After Couture scored his empty-netter with exactly a minute left, Oshie won the center ice draw and Reirden pulled Holtby for the extra attacker again. Thirteen seconds later, it was a 4-3 game. Radko Gudas - typically not a staple of the Caps' 6-on-5 corps - made an excellent keep at the right point, pushing the puck down low to Eller. Eller flung it to the front where Vrana had enough time and space to fire a shot from the slot, beating Jones to make it 4-3 with 46.9 seconds remaining.
Again Oshie won the center ice draw, and again Holtby went to the bench. The Caps migrated to the San Jose zone, and Alex Ovechkin made a strong play to keep the puck in San Jose territory at the right point. From there, Nicklas Backstrom and Kuznetsov combined to set up Oshie, who ripped a shot past Jones with 14.2 seconds left, tying the game at 4-4.
Video: SJS@WSH: Oshie nets game-tying goal from circle late
"At 6-on-5 we've got a pretty good game plan," says Oshie. "It always helps when you've got a guy like [Ovechkin] that they have to worry about his shot. More times than not, it's going to open up someone else, and not a lot of times are the goals going to be too pretty - or too bang-bang - like mine was there. But with Tom [Wilson] in front of the net wreaking havoc and taking away space from their defenders, I think it's a pretty good unit."
In overtime, Holtby stopped Kane's try for a fourth goal on a 2-on-1 rush, and then thwarted Brent Burns' breakaway bid before making a perfect indirect feed to Carlson, who promptly set up Eller's deciding goal.
"If you make that long stretch pass," says Eller of Holtby's handiwork with his goalie stick, "you can usually catch two players, especially on the changes, and he did exactly that. Two-on-one with Johnny, and once he made the pass to me, I saw the goalie really slide over to cover the short side. I just tried to go glove side, where it was open."
"That was one where we were fortunate," says Reirden. "We get a couple of big plays to give ourselves a chance, and then a huge goal by Osh to send it into overtime. It was a real character win for us."
Playing for the second time in as many afternoons, San Jose's modest two-game winning streak - its first in more than a month - came to a stunning stop on Sunday.
"It's tough to let that one get away, 4-2 with a minute to go," says Sharks interim coach Bob Boughner. "Third period, we didn't really allow a lot at 5-on-5, defensively we were pretty tight. So you could take a million great things out of this game for us, but that's why they're leading the league and that's why they have the most points, because they find ways to win games."
Video: Capitals rally late, defeat Kane, Sharks in overtime